Friday, 14 May 2021

RJ Unstead Goes Travelling

Having a mind that finds abstract concepts hard to grasp, my attempts to learn about history have usually met with failure. The only things I have learnt until now about what happened in the past are the facts I learned from RJ Unstead, who provided masses of details about clothes and food and housing, which were the things that helped me understand and remember what happened when. 

The one drawback about that was that Unstead's great work, Looking at History, only covered the history of Britain. How was I going to remember what happened in the rest of the world?

Then it came to me: whenever I saw a commemorative statue or plaque, I would try to find out who the person concerned was. My trivial brain would learn fact through personal story. 

And so I have started - and I have created a blog to record all my discoveries. It will start with statues and commemorative things in Budapest, but I hope we might be allowed to travel one day and I will then try to add the same sorts of posts concerning people who have been commemorated further afield. At the end of each post I will endeavour to include a mapshot, giving an indication of where the thing I'm writing about can be found. 

Here is the first post in the series.

Thursday, 13 May 2021

The Joys of Twitter - an Occasional Series

The re-elected Mayor of London, having complained for some time that the London transport system is penniless, announced on Twitter yesterday that he was thrilled with the new signs he had commissioned from David Hockney. They will replace the ones in the Piccadilly Circus tube station, and Mr Khan is proud that he is ushering in this change:


To my great joy, instantly Twitter users reacted - and not one single response was positive. That restored my faith in the possibility that most people are not idiots. Better still, a great many of the replies were very funny. Some, of course, were bitter:


This was my absolute favourite:


But there were many others that also brought cheer, either because they were funny or because they were wise and upset. They made me glad to know I am not alone in believing it is totally wrongheaded to fiddle with the superbly elegant design of the standard enamel tube signs (like all the very best design, it is something so good that you don't notice it has been designed; the thought of design or a designer behind it doesn't come into your head, because it is so exactly right that it seems to have always existed)































































Wednesday, 12 May 2021

What Happened



An incredibly kind friend decided some weeks ago that he was going to hack his way through the bureaucratic undergrowth & get me enrolled in the Hungarian system so that if I should need to consult my local doctor that would be allowed. I did try to discourage him - having been born with two nationalities, I am acutely aware that civil servants regard me as a dangerous aberrrant & do all they can to block access to any & everything for me. 

He is, I think, now beginning to regret his decision to get this task underway.

Anyway, rummaging in the filing cabinet for some document that might help him, I came across one of my favourite New Yorker cartoons. If the man in it is taken to be the world last January, it sums up what was about to happen very nicely:

Tuesday, 11 May 2021

Reading - Territorial Rights by Muriel Spark and Under the Net by Iris Murdoch

By chance, just after finishing reading a novel by Muriel Spark and one by Iris Murdoch, I came across a review of two of their novels by John Updike in the first issue of the New Yorker in 1975. 

As so often, Updike had interesting things to say.

First of all, I was heartened to see that my experience of Iris Murdoch's novels - that they leave no lasting impression, despite being well-imagined - was something Updike also experienced. He remarked that her characterisation and story telling is:

"so vivid & impressive ... endowed with all the substance her remarkable powers of imagination & introspection could fabricate" 

and yet his impressions of what he had read:

"do not last. Miss Murdoch is less Shakespeare than Prospero, holding us enchanted as long as we stay on her island, then the insubstantial pageant fades.”

I'm not certain that his identification of Murdoch's main theme is correct or more a reflection of his own obsessions:

"Her theme is "erotic love is never still.” In some of her novels the shifts of allegiance and attraction wrought by the inexhaustible, tempestuous force of erotic love approach the mechanical and unintentionally comic; a kind of square dance passingly links every character to every other. And, as in a mystery novel the murderer can be spotted because he is the least likely candidate, so the Murdochian hero or heroine can be counted upon to love, at last, and truly, the most repulsive figure of the opposite."

Updike's observations on the two novelists and their place in the literary order are perceptive, and I particularly like his observation about the legacy they contain from Shakespeare:

"They constitute a class by themselves—both so intelligent and fluent, so quizzical and knowing, both such resourceful mixes of feminine clairvoyance and masculine generalship, both such makers. Miss Murdoch, true, is copious and explanatory where Mrs. Spark is curt and oblique; she can hardly turn around in fewer than a hundred thousand words where the other can't bring herself to exceed novella length; she is wistfully theistic rather than flatly so, and concerned with goodness instead of with faith. The two of them together reappropriate for their generation Shakespeare's legacy of dark comedy, of deceptions and enchantmеntѕ, оf shuddering contrivances, of deep personal forces held trembling in a skein of sociable truces."

I like especially the understanding exhibited by the phrase "concerned with goodness instead of with faith"

Here are my more pedestrian comments on the particular novels I read by the two women:

Territorial Rights is set in Venice, and Muriel Spark moves her characters around that city as if they were chess pieces. They inhabit the usual Spark quasi-surreal atmosphere and coincidences abound. Everybody is absurd, no one is virtuous. A recurring Sparkian element, the possibility that reality is a novel written by an unseen hand, is once again hinted at. An easy read that I suspect is not quite as clever as Spark thought it was. 

Under the Net is an amusing, baffling book with some lyrical moments and quite a few laughs. It is narrated by a cheerful, fairly  aimless soul, and I suspect the meandering story is some sort of everyman parable of life's amiable meaninglessness. Or maybe it is just a meandering story. It is quite engaging and faintly intriguing while you are reading it, but it washes over you and is forgotten in a trice. Perhaps prophetically, it contains a piece of anti-Semitism uttered by a character called Lefty. 

The book is dedicated to Raymond Queneau, which probably provides a big clue to whatever was the author's intention.

Tuesday, 4 May 2021

We Need Nordahl Now

I’ve been reading a memoir by Graham Greene in which he recalls a Norwegian friend called Nordahl. The description he gives of him includes this passage:

“There were always arguments where Nordahl was, and never a trace of anger. He was the only man I have ever met with whom it was possible to disagree profoundly both on religion and politics and yet feel all the time the sense of goodwill and an open mind. He not only had goodwill himself, but he admitted goodwill in his opponent - he more than admitted it, he assumed it. In fact he had charity - of greater value than the gold of the National Bank, and to me he certainly brought a measure of hope in 1931, carrying it like a glass of akvavit down the muddy lane in Chipping Campden.”

"He not only had goodwill himself, but he admitted goodwill in his opponent" - how welcome a few more people like that would be in this new cantankerous age.

Reading - The Husband Hunters by Anne de Courcy

This book looks at the phenomenon of rich young American women marrying English peers, something that became a frequent occurrence in the period between about 1870 and 1905. Anne de Courcy has a wonderful eye for interesting details and brings to life an era of huge wealth, rigid formality and intense social competitiveness. She supplies a massive amount of intriguing detail about clothing, servants, food and behaviour. The book is in many ways a companion guide to the world of Edith Wharton's novels. There are too many intriguing little bits of information in the text to quote them all here so I will confine myself to three at random:

1. Charles Dickens had a bathroom installed in 1851 and took a shower every morning, but he was practically alone in this - most people made do with a daily sponge bath, and the upper classes regarded plumbing as horribly middle class.

2. In the 19th century the coat hangar had not been invented.

3. At Newport, Rhode Island, all society women tried to protect their skin from the sun's rays with hats or veils or both, but some "of the more dashing women would wear something even stronger: a mask made of fine chamois leather, often with embroidered lips and eyes".

A truly entertaining, informative book.


Sunday, 2 May 2021

Reading - The Pike by Lucy Hughes Hallett

Having read many good reviews, I was looking forward to this book. In it Lucy Hughes-Hallett tells the story of Gabriele d'Annunzio and attempts to make the case that he was not merely the most vivid expression of the wild times in which he lived but a person without whom the theatrical aspects of Mussolini's Fascist Italy might never have been realised. However, very early on Hughes Hallett herself has to admit that the extent of d'Annunzio's political influence is very much a matter of dispute. Once this admission is made, (page 64 in my edition), tramping through the next 600 pages grew wearisome for me. The fact that "we know in enormous detail what d'Annunzio did in bed" and Hughes-Hallett provides much of that detail did not help, since I am not a voyeur. Hughes-Hallett attempts to hold our attention by acknowledging that there is quite a lot to disapprove of in d'Annunzio and then asserting that "disapproval is not an interesting response." Well no, but revulsion is not a pleasant feeling, yet the fact remains that the reaction of the reader to most of d'Annunzio's behaviour is likely to be revulsion, which makes it a long, revolting read.

The problem Hughes-Hallett faces in trying to portray d'Annunzio is that you really had to be there. He was clearly hypnotic in person, in possession of an extraordinary charisma when addressing a crowd. Sadly charisma is not something that can be resurrected through descriptions after the event. Therefore one is left with the fact that, as Hughes-Hallett says, "he was one of the cleverest of men, but also one of the least empathetic. He was as ruthless and selfish as a baby", (why does Boris Johnson keep leaping into my mind, I wonder). Without being mesmerised by witnessing his personal magnetism, the things he does - binding his eyes as he approached the border when returning to Italy, "lest the first sight of his homeland be too emotional", for example - seem frankly ludicrous. 

One aspect of d'Annunzio that is faintly interesting in the context of today's politics is the fact that he was clearly a populist - "Instead of looking up the social scale and the political hierarchy, seeking endorsement from the ruling class, he looked to the people, turning popularity into power". However, those who came after him were also populists - and I was not convinced by this book that their populism was due to d'Annunzio's influence. Populism appears at times of dissatisfaction and upheaval and the period between the first and second world wars in Europe was a period of dissatisfaction and upheaval. 

Ultimately, for me the book was pointless, beyond the discovery that Pirandello was at best an appeaser of the Fascists, which was very disappointing. I was not convinced that politically d'Annunzio was more than an extremely eccentric egoist whose showmanship was directed at nothing other than his own self-aggrandisement and grew from the mood of the times rather than influencing them. I was not interested in his sexual exploits. Inasmuch as I might be interested in him as an artist - and James Joyce seems to have admired him, declaring that he was "the only European writer after Flaubert to carry the novel into new territory" - then the place to start must surely be his actual writing, not his biography.














Friday, 30 April 2021

A Spring Walk

Yesterday I went for a walk across the river and up the Gellért Hill in Budapest. It is a walk I often do. I never fail to be delighted by the pale blue school I pass. For more pictures and informaton about the architect and the building's history, see here (in Hungarian, but thanks to the wonders of Google Translate that shouldn't be a barrier, and anyway there are many pictures)


I am almost equally fond of this sheltered stone bench, which is just beyond the pale blue school. It is seems to me to have been built with the kind of care and attention to urban amenities that one no longer even expects, let alone receives, today:

As it is spring though, buildings - (or, as some high falutin types like to say, "the built environment") - weren't my first priority. 

Spring in Europe, even in the most architecturally blighted landscape, always lightens the heart via trees and birds and flowers (we all of us have our own inner Fotherington Thomas, don't we?) There is the sudden return of birdsong. There is the new growth, the leaves so fresh and, at the risk of sheer banality, so green and so glossy. 


If there were a Desert Island Discs for trees and I could only take one from my list of favourites, a horse chestnut tree in spring time would without a shadow of a doubt be the tree that I would choose for my desert island (speaking of Desert Island Discs, apparently there was a genius on the other day who chose as his luxury a Viennese cafe).

The building this horse chestnut stands beside was during the second world war, in case anyone is interested, the Swedish embassy, and it housed Raoul Wallenberg


Anyway, I got so carried away in my pleasure at the arrival of spring that, as I was coming back down the hill, I embarked on an exchange with a man who was sitting on a bench. Around the man not only was their birdsong and new leaf on all the trees and bushes, but also flowering poppies, wintersweet, lilac and honeysuckle. There was a very slight breeze but it resulted in a rippling, dappled pattern of shadows that was very pleasing. 

The man was not looking particularly cheerful, and I thought he might be feeling lonely. Therefore, in a spirit of friendliness, I commented as I passed that it was a beautiful day. He looked at me with a face that did not seem to be lit up with the same delight as mine. "It could be warmer",  he said.

I was reminded of the story told regularly by the headmistress at a school I went to for a couple of years. I think it was a parable from Aristotle, or could it have been Plato? Anyway it involves a sage man, walking along the road that led from Athens to Sparta. He sees a man coming towards him and when that man gets close, he hails the sage man and asks him if he is coming from Athens. When the sage man replies that he is, the wayfarer asks what Athens is like. The sage man replies with another question (does this suggest it is a story of Plato's, was counter questioning his method?): "What did you think of Sparta?" 

"I hated it", the wayfarer tells the sage man. "Well then, you will hate Athens", says the sage man. The two of them part and each continues on his way.

Soon the sage man sees another figure coming towards him. The self-same conversation follows, except that when the second wayfarer asks about what Athens is like and is asked in turn how he liked Sparta, he responds by saying he loved it. The sage man then assures him that in that case he will love Athens too.

That man on the bench, I thought, didn't see a beautiful day; he only saw a day that could be better - he would have hated Sparta and therefore he would have hated Athens. 

But then, when I told a friend of mine the story, she explained that, while the word for "day" that I used in Hungarian is indeed the word for "day", the man probably misunderstood me because it is also the word for "sun"; he probably thought I was commenting specifically on the sun and its warmth at that moment, and I ought to have used the word for weather. Which proves that drawing any conclusions from interchanges in foreign languages is fraught with complication. 


Sunday, 18 April 2021

Emerging from the Ruins

Several people I know have spoken to me about a puzzling sense of melancholy as lockdown slowly comes to an end (one hopes). While the panic, sorry pandemic, was in full swing, most people's main preoccupations were: 1. a longing to return to how things were before; and 2. a dogged day-by-day determination to endure. 

But now the tide of fear is subsiding, people have stopped dropping like flies in the street (hang on, that never happened, so why ... no, no, let's not open up that can of worms) and the first signs of normality are appearing along with the new spring leaves on the trees.

So why the sad faces? Smile, it might never happen, as men yell in my direction from time to time in the street.

Could delayed shock be part of what is making some people feel odd when they expected to feel ecstatic - the shock of realising that you cannot ever again take anything for granted? Although some freedoms and rights are gradually being returned, we now understand something most of us really weren't aware of a year ago - namely, that everything can be whipped away at a moment's notice, on someone else's whim. There is also no guarantee that we will ever be allowed to do all the things that we used to be allowed to do - and, most shockingly, it turns out that large numbers of our fellow humans seemed to be delighted to find themselves incarcerated in a cage of rules.

Or is there something else at work? A year ago, abruptly, the fabric of our lives, the backdrop of day-to-day existence, was torn up and the torn pieces were tossed high into the air. The things we had assumed were part and parcel of normal human life vanished before our eyes. 

We endured that strange and unexpected transformation, and now, twelve months later, as we snatch back the shreds of our former lives and start to try to put them back together, every single piece has to be examined, to see exactly where it goes. As we study each bit, we have to reassess it, asking ourselves: where does this fit - in fact, does it fit anywhere at all? Every aspect of our existence is thus thrown into question. 

Having thought all we wanted was to go back to normal, we now find ourselves facing choices. Where before we simply accepted, we now are faced with questions that in turn make us re-examine the past. 

So many things were taken away but did we miss all of them? Having lived without them, do we really want to go back to all of those places, those people, those habits? Before all this happened, were we actually happy or were we simply unthinking? Now that we are starting over, do we want to rebuild things exactly as they were again?

Questioning one's own reality is a frightening experience, and more than enough to induce melancholia. We thought we were happy then, but can we be absolutely sure?

Saturday, 17 April 2021

Then Again

Having yesterday cited interviews in 2018 conducted by Andrew Neil as examples of journalism being too preoccupied with gotchas and not interested enough in helping the public to understand the true nature of things, I now present an object lesson by the same Andrew Neil in how to be a really good interviewer. 

On the latest online weekly programme put out by the Spectator magazine Neil decided to interview the father of the current Prime Minister of Britain (who is someone I am glad survived his bout with coronavirus but I wish, given his apparent lack of any leadership qualities, had since retired to recover his strength and look after his latest child). 

My initial reaction to the news that the Prime Minister's father was going to be interviewed was to groan. If there is a greater self-promoter in the Johnson family than the Prime Minister himself and his sister, it is Stanley, father of them all. However, Neil, simply by asking good, careful questions calmly, did a superb job of exposing Johnson senior's ignorance, lack of principle and pomposity, as well as the worrying flaws in the extreme environmental policies of his son's government, (policies that, one came to suspect over the course of the interview, are at least in part the result of lobbying from the frightful Stanley, a man who does not repudiate the worst excesses of Exctinction Rebellion - in other words Extinction Rebellion ideas are being incorporated in policy at the highest level in Britain today, which is just marvellous).  

For all Johnson Senior's conviction that the public is becoming aware of the costs of, for instance, the coming compulsory boiler conversions each household will endure and is totally in favour of it, it became evident in the interview that this issue alone is going to be enormously damaging for the budgets of individual householders - and in any case is possibly unfeasible. In Stanley Johnson's performance, moreover, the viewer was able to see exactly where the current Prime Minister's own waffly bombasticism comes from and to discover that, as so often, the British establishment all too easily overlooks issues of human rights, if its own domestic interests are at stake - in this case the abuses the public is being encouraged to minimise and overlook are those of the current Communist regime in China, one of the cruellest and most dangerous the world as ever seen, but meh:  

It is a service that Neil has done in this interview, but it is a worrying thing to watch, simply because I have no idea how Britain is to rid itself of zealous idiots who are committing their hapless voters to enormous expense - expense that is to be piled on the already astonishingly enormous expense caused by the strictest and most ineffective lockdowns the world has seen during this pandemic. There is no opposition to any of this. The only voices of dissent in the parliament are those who argue that, whatever is being done, it is not enough. My children live in Britain. I worry for them.

Thursday, 15 April 2021

Hunting

Looking for something else on this blog, I read a post from 2018 about political reporting. Reading it, it occurred to me that since then very little has changed in that regard, except possibly for the worse. It struck me that while fox hunting has been banned in Britain, politician hunting has not. Where once there were men in pink coats on horses, with other riders galloping behind, now we have journalists who do not have horses but who are just as forceful when it comes to hue and cry.  This may explain why are leaders are less good than they might be: who would put themselves forward in order to be hunted - and, of those who did decide to, who would survive the relentless deliberate goading of journalists, designed not to illicit information but to humiliate and undermine? 

This revelation came to me when I was watching some interviews conducted by AF Neil with Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt. The interviews were bruited abroad as absolutely brilliant, but to me they seemed - and they still do - to be absolutely perfect examples of why politics is broken at this time. Instead of asking questions of interest and waiting for answers as they once did, journalists now hector and bully.  They lay traps for gotchas and they are ruder than anyone should be. This is considered great journalism, and in the last year there has been the added element of panic stoking, when a genuinely useful journalistic task would have been to engage in analysis of risk and the potential effects across all areas of life of various strategies to deal with it. But that might involve some serious work and complex thinking. 

In those interviews in 2018 the examples that struck me as egregious were many. I picked out only two. The first was when Andrew Neil asked Johnson this:

"Someone who's worked for you, who knows you well, says you're all flaws and no character. The British people will face huge and unprecedented risk with Boris Johnson as Prime Minister, won't they"

To me, that wasn't actually a question - essentially Neil was hurling an anonymous insult at his interviewee and expecting what? That Johnson would say, "You're right. I'm awful". Or could it be that he just hoped to elicit squeals of joy from admiring journalistic colleagues - "Ooo look at Andy, being butch and showing no respect, that's how we do it these days, spit on the lot of them, while never being prepared ourselves to take on these hellish jobs".

And to Hunt, Neil sneered that his business wasn't as big as those founded by people like Steve Jobs - because, once again, why should you show any respect for anyone who wants to be a member of parliament, even if you, the interviewer, have never set up a company or created new jobs for anyone, or indeed ever tried to do anything constructive, preferring to go into what is no longer a studio but an arena and attempt to tear and rip away any tattered vestiges of respect the public might hope to retain toward their elected representatives. 

Imagine if journalists subjected themselves to these kinds of experiences. But they never do. The media like to remain firmly in a pack, hunting, not hunted. Their prey is politicians and anyone at all who tries to do anything positive. It's actually both sickening and hugely corrosive for democracy and decent government - you have to be prepared to be hounded if you decide to go into any form of public life - not merely questioned, but spoken to with unbridled viciousness, as if you deserve it just for daring to try. It's called bullying, and political interviewers have become the entitled, arrogant bullies of our age. Journalists have become one of the major reasons the world is in a mess.

Wednesday, 14 April 2021

Dream Leader

In the latest issue of the New Yorker is an article by John McPhee. As I revere his writing, I turned straight to that page. 

I brought with me to my reading my preoccupation of the moment - something that has increasingly been on my mind as this last year has progressed. That preoccupation is: why are our leaders so second-rate at the moment and, if I am so critical of them, what is it I want instead?

I have no answer to the why but, in John McPhee's description of Paul McHenry Washburn, Captain in 1988 of the SS Stella Sykes, US Merchant Marine, I have found a perfect summing up of what it is I expect from a leader:

"He was aloof, commanding, understanding, sympathetic, and utterly adroit in the skills of his demanding profession ... from the engine room to the bridge the ship was running on respect for him."


Monday, 12 April 2021

Reading: The Comedians by Graham Greene

The Comedians is the 14th or 15th novel by Graham Greene that I have read in the last year and a half. I find him entertaining and I admire his diligence - although I suspect he would hate that second adjective: I have the impression that effortless, politely disdainful, insouciance, what we might now call cool, was the effect he was aiming for. In this regard, as a figure he reminds me a little of Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens - all three were or are aiming fairly obviously to appear nonchalant (although why an attitude that borders on indifference and apathy is so often charismatic is something difficult to comprehend - perhaps it was a useful attribute when we were hunter/gatherers). Of course, the very fact that an effort, however faint, is discernible, means that none of them ever were or will transcend being poseurs and reach the state of true and genuine cool. 

All three do manage to be icy to some degree though - and, speaking of icy, Greene remained friends until the end with the coldest man ever to come out of the fairly chilly culture that is upper middle class England - Kim Philby. Greene's loyalty to a monster is something that I cannot understand.

But let us return to The Comedians - it is not the best (or the worst) book that I have read by Greene, who is definitely patchy. However, it is, like almost all his work, diverting, not least because of its setting, impoverished, terrorised Haiti during Papa Doc Duvalier's violent reign. 

The story begins at sea, on a boat that is on its way to Haiti. In the closed world of a ship, amid some typical Greenian grotesquery - most notably the desk "littered with great swollen phalluses ... like a massacre of pigs", which is the result of the ship purser's decision, given the lack of balloons onboard, to blow up condoms as decoration for the shipboard party - and some fairly heavy handed hints of impending menace - "the flat grey sea ...seemed to lie ... like an animal, passive and ominous in a cage waiting to show what it can do outside" - we are introduced to the three main characters: Messrs Brown, Smith and Jones. As their names suggest, Greene is presenting the reader with emblems as well as characters. 

Brown is the narrator, a man born in Monte Carlo and claiming to be detached and rootless as a result, a condition he seems to regard as something to be proud of. I think he is confusing indifference with Romantic alienation, just like those who wish to be cool. In his apathetic self-aggrandisement, Browne quotes possibly the worst line of all Romantic poetry, the bit about "rocks and stones and trees", from Wordsworth's A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal. 

Habitual readers of Greene will recognise Brown - he is a new iteration of the narrator in The Quiet American and, like that figure, for all his claims of detachment and having "forgotten how to be involved", he is very involved - even obsessed - with a woman he knows will never wholeheartedly love him, partly because she has a child whose name is Angel. Presumably Greene thought the allusion would help to remind the forgetful or unenlightened among his readers that all women in his fiction, even the prostitutes, are really the Madonna.  

Brown tells us the tale of the interweaving experiences of the three men - Brown, Smith and Jones - during their time on Haiti. His tone is world weary and melancholy, everything is in a minor key - indeed, very little Greene wrote is not steeped with this minor key melancholy; even Monsignor Quixote, despite that book being essentially a comedy. Brown explains that his world-weariness has only come to full maturity since - and in part because of - the events he tells of in the book. At the time of which he tells, he admits, "I still regarded my future seriously", while now he can no longer be sure that it is possible to "describe as serious the confused comedy of our lives". Looking back, he sees that as far as Haiti and life there goes, the novel's central trio "were only a subplot offering a little light relief". 

The character called Smith is another Greene retread. If Alden Pyle from The Quiet American had grown old he might well have become something like Smith, an evangelical vegetarian who once stood for US President. In the 11 years between The Quiet American and The Comedians, Greene's attitude toward Yankee naivety seems to have become more nuanced. While Smith is seen as largely laughable and naive, he is also allowed to display determination, courage and integrity. "Wasn't it possibly a flaw in character to believe so passionately in the integrity of all the world", Brown asks himself about Smith, but ultimately he sums him up as "an old man with beautiful manners", adding that "suddenly I realised how much I missed him", somewhat undermining his claim to be entirely emotionally null and void. 

Finally there is Jones, the unikely beating heart of the novel. Jones, a liar, a conman and a crook is a man who "wore his ambiguity like a loud suit". He admits that "somehow I couldn't find what I was intended to do." In some respects, he is Brown's mirror image. Although Brown owns a hotel, while Jones owns nothing, although Brown, it is implied, is tall, good looking, possibly even debonair (in my mind, he appears as a poor man's Cary Grant or as James Stewart in a very bad mood), while Jones is tiny, "with dark Pekinese eyes" and flat feet, what both men share is a taste for dissembling - they are among the comedians of the title and their relationship is constructed on that basis:

"Interrogation, partly concealed, was to be the basis of our relationship in the short time it lasted: we would snatch at small clues, though in great matters we would usually pretend to accept the other's story. I suppose those of us who spend a large part of our lives in dissembling, whether to a woman, to a partner, even to our own selves, begin to smell each other out. Jones and I learnt a lot about one another before the end, for one uses a little truth whenever one can. It is a form of economy."

Each has a loose understanding of the difference between right and wrong. In an earlier incarnation, Brown sold fake paintings to those willing to be fooled: "I once sold an imitation Pollock to a man who had Walt Disney dwarfs planted in his garden, around the sun-dial and on either side the crazy paving", he confides. "Did I harm him? He could afford the money." 

Furthering the identification between the two, Brown encourages us to believe that both he and Jones at the start of the novel simultaneously reach a crucial moment, the "point of no return unremarked at the time in most lives". 

But there are major differences. Jones, unlike Brown, possesses the ability to make women laugh. Both Brown's mistress and his favourite prostitute mention this aspect of Jones’s personality with fondness. Furthermore, despite the two men sharing a fairly fluid approach towards honesty, Jones may be more reluctant than Brown in his waywardness, if Brown's speculations, articulated in one of the book's most lovely passages, are correct:

"I wondered whether perhaps in all his devious life he had been engaged on a secret and hopeless love affair with virtue, watching virtue from a distance, hoping to be noticed, perhaps, like a child doing wrong in order to attract the attention of virtue."

In addition, unlike Brown, Jones has a guiding dream - in fact he has two: "You have to have two in case the first goes wrong", he explains. One, his back-up, is to set up a golfing resort on a coral reef not far from Haiti, with "a long bar made of coral called the Desert Island Bar". The other is to be a hero.

According to Paul Theroux in the introduction to my edition, the book was written at a time when Greene was short of money, due to the failures of an accountant (Theroux suggests that Jones may be modelled on this figure) and possibly this led to some slipshod stylistic moments. The book's opening line strikes me as stupendously unwieldy, especially from the author of Brighton Rock, which has one of the most arresting opening lines in all fiction. One of the first things we are told about Mr Smith is that he has "large innocent hairy ears"; the concept of innocent ears is one I find hard to accept. There are also dissonant moments I think could have done with cutting, such as the exchange between a young American couple about the female partner's ability to swim the backstroke: it is snobbish and pointless and rings quite untrue. Similarly, there are quite a few clunking similes, such as "The rain was hammered into the ground like a prefabricated wall." 

But there is much to enjoy in the book, including many good lines. Perhaps the one that stands out as being ideal for these times of government imposed restrictions in the name of safety is the narrator's remark that "security can get on the nerves just as much as danger".  

Potential readers should be warned that there are a couple of moments of unutterable racism - my least favourite is "his face dripped with tears like a black roof in a storm". On the other hand, some of the racism goes the other way: a Haitian official observes: " My personal view of every white man is very low. I admit I am offended by the colour, which reminds me of turd. But we accept some of you - if you are useful to the state."

Unlike The Quiet American which takes your breath away with a late twist, The Comedians has no plot surprises. All the same, above all because of the character of Jones, I recommend it. And despite my reservations, including the fact that the character he elects in this novel as the person with true heroic integrity is a Communist, I will go on reading Greene. I think he was utterly mistaken in his hatred for America, his armchair Marxism and his loyalty to Kim Philby (and don’t get me started on his behaviour toward the women in his life) but, in the end, although he was a bit of a swine and a bit of a show off, he was, in his writing, a great entertainer. In other words, he was, in all senses, one of those people he called "the comedians".

Thursday, 8 April 2021

Covid Consequences

After a few weeks’ break, hairdressers reopened yesterday in Hungary. Today my husband, who hates it if his hair brushes his ears or flops in his eyes or falls over his collar and has consequently been chopping away at himself for a few weeks, went to get his hair cut. The lady he went to stood behind him, looked down at his hair & then looked at him in the mirror, her expression half amazement, half horror: Mit történt? she asked (what happened?)

Thursday, 25 March 2021

Gone

My cousin Belinda, with whom I spent huge amounts of my childhood, died suddenly last week. She was part of the fabric of my life.

While many people approve of the saying, "God made our relatives, thank God we can make our own friends", I have a different perspective. I thank God for giving me relatives, as the bond between my relatives and me seems to me more durable and often more truthful than the bond of many of my friendships. Additionally, precisely because my cousins haven't been chosen by me from my own private bubble, but are mostly people who have quite different outlooks from mine and who lead lives quite different from my own, they broaden my horizons. My life is enriched through being in contact with them. 

And I'm especially grateful that I was given Belinda as a cousin, because I know she would never in the normal course of events have chosen me as her friend - I wasn't very good at riding, I was rather serious and gloomy, and I was younger by almost two years. Yet she was stuck with me and somehow between us, though neither of us would normally be soppy enough to admit it, an unlikely but deep and lasting bond was formed.  

My childhood memories of Belinda are almost exclusively in horse related settings. She was a skinny little girl with buck teeth who lived almost constantly in jodhpurs and blue aertex shirts. She had a wonderful Welsh mountain pony called Charlie who was so reliable that at the final stop during a dressing-up race at a gymkhana when I, to Belinda's shame in front of her pony club colleagues, leapt on in great haste and realised too late that I was facing backwards, Charlie cantered genially to the next stop, without blinking an eye. Charlie's replacement after years of solid service was a skewbald called Harlequin and, making up the numbers was a huge bay hunter called Trilee. She belonged to my aunt, Belinda's mother, but, before the arrival of Harlequin, when I was staying, I would ride Charlie and Belinda would ride her mother's horse.

If the weather was good - that is to say, if it wasn't actually pouring - Belinda and I could be found either at the stables, attending to the ponies with dandy brushes, currycombs, hoof picks and all the other things that transformed grooming from the mere process of brushing a horse into a recondite art which only initiates could practice, or riding through the shady Hampshire lanes, or hurtling across fields, often, if Trilee was involved, not entirely in control.

There were also winter dawns when an enormous truck would arrive and the horses would be loaded, ready to be taken to a meet of the local hunt. Not that I was anywhere near brave enough to go hunting. I was a total amateur, while Belinda was fearless and rode like the wind. 

If the weather was bad we would either pore over books about the Spanish Riding School or a treasured volume called Horses of the World or play with the greatest toys ever made, Julip ponies, which could only be bought from one place, a small shop in Beauchamp Place in London. They had manes and tails of real hair and tiny exquisite saddles and bridles and rugs. They had owners, but their faces and features were never as carefully rendered as those of the horses themselves - which was exactly as it should be. 

The horses were handmade from some kind of rubber that, sadly, perishes. As a result, Belinda and I each discovered years later when we went to find our beautiful toys, planning to hand them on to our children, that our much loved horses had turned into rather revolting, misshapen objects that would only terrify a child. 

Away from both live and toy horses, we were capable of other pastimes. At granny's, after one visit when our brothers, having tricked us into believing they would play horses with us, instead tied us both to a tree with our skipping ropes, we learned to divert our attention from equine things. Instead we would head either to the compost heap, where we spent astonishing amounts of times imagining the dead flowers we found there were ballet dancers, or to a little bridge over the river Itchen, which ran along the bottom of granny's garden, where we spent whole afternoons playing pooh sticks. Talk about simpler times. 

In Trebetherick, in Cornwall, where Belinda's parents had a holiday place, I remember running round and round the house, imagining we were in some complicated adventure involving the kidnap and rescue of Cattie, Belinda's beloved companion, a small oddly shaped and frankly fairly hideous thing that appeared to have been fashioned from a knitted string dishcloth - I doubt if there was ever a more underserving object of affection. And of course there were races up Brae Hill, and trips to the beach at Daymer Bay or Greenaway - but only after the grown ups had amused themselves by getting Belinda to mention her Wed Wubba Wing at least half a dozen times, (she never was able to say R). 

In her early teens, while practising dressage in a field where no one would easily hear her, Belinda fell from Harlequin when he shied at something. Terrifyingly her foot caught in the stirrup and she was dragged for some time. In the end, a man in the next field turned off his tractor and heard her screams, but by that time she needed to go to hospital, where she spent quite some time. When she came out, horses had lost their charm. 

Around the same era, Belinda started to come to stay at our house in London. She was always absurdly excited by being in the city. Each year we would go together to Olympia to visit the Daily Mail Boys' and Girls' Exhibition, which was actually a complete swiz, full of stalls selling total trash, with just one or two gimmicks, such as the chance to see a Dalek, to attract the crowds. Somehow we had a great deal of fun there all the same. We saved up our pocket money for it and we spent masses on the most hopelessly stupid things. I suppose the worst of our universally dreadful purchases was the can of spray-on hair colour which turned out to be a kind of pink paintlike substance that dissolved much of the hair on which it landed. The highlight of all our annual visits was seeing inside a Dalek.

After my mother returned to her native Australia and took me with her, I saw less of Belinda for a while, although we always met up in London when I came back to see my father - we would go to a film, (most notably, we saw Cabaret and Fellini's Roma together) and afterwards to whatever was the latest London fad, eg The Great American Disaster

When Belinda finished school, she was sent off to learn something called Speedwriting, so that she could become part of that now long gone but at the time thriving species, the hilariously hopeless female secretary. As spelling was very much not Belinda's strong suit, she found it extremely difficult to read back her misspelt shortenings of already misspelt words. I don't know how it came about but an unsuspecting military historian was her first client. She went off to his house in Carlyle Square each day and took pages and pages of Speedwriting notes as he dictated his forthcoming book. When she had typed these up, she presented him with a manuscript in which he set out his theory that Napoleon's initial successes were the result of a combination of heavy duty candelabra (cannon), huge numbers of sausages (soldiers) and the skilful deployment of large bananas (battalions) across the battlefield. She wasn't asked back to Carlyle Square, but other work was always available. I remember visiting her in an office near Fenwicks, where her only role seemed to be to make her bosses laugh. It was a gentler age, before the advent of management consultancies - although luckily for everyone Belinda did eventually find a vocation more suitable to her talents when she discovered the craft of gilding.

When I came back to Britain and decided to live in London, Belinda was quite extraordinarily hospitable to me. She slotted me into her social life as if I'd always been there and any time that she was having people for dinner or a party - often - it didn't seem occur to her that I shouldn't come along. Although some of the people I met through her would not pass muster in today's woke culture - (a man known as the Groper who always wore a purple rubber glove springs to mind) - I am overall endlessly grateful to her.  My life in London could have been extremely lonely, had it not been for her kindness 

Which is not to say that Belinda was an old softie by any means. Like all of my family, including me, she was extremely impatient. Which was why, when she mentioned that she was going to do Bed and Breakfast at her house, I had my doubts. While sociable, none of us, not me, not my father, not Belinda, are full of good cheer at all times, and particularly not at breakfast. When I inquired some time later how the venture was going, she asked me if I thought that she was unusually formidable. I replied by asking why she was asking. She explained that at the end of a week-long stay, she had asked one American couple if they had enjoyed themselves and they had said they had but then, very nervously, had admitted that there had been one small problem - they hadn't been able to find the switches on any of the lights (presumably they were not familiar with the British habit of having the buttons on the lamp's stem) but hadn't dared tell her. Additionally, after the departure of some guests who she had not liked and felt she had been particularly tolerant and gracious to in the circumstances, she had been unable to find the brand new towels she had provided for them, bought from Peter Jones two days before their arrival. She had assumed the couple had nicked them and had gone about feeling livid for several days. But then she had discovered the towels, in the linen cupboard, still in their cellophane wrapping, inside their Peter Jones carrier bag. At which point she realised that the couple she thought she had been so kind and hospitable to must in fact have been so utterly terrified by her demeanour that they had preferred to dry themselves on loo paper or the curtains or who knew what, rather than approach her to ask if they could possibly have even a single towel. 

Belinda was a mother of four, grandmother of four more, a very good amateur painter, a brilliant cook and able to transform any house she lived in into a haven of comfort and charm. These are achievements that are of more value than many of the things for which people become famous and celebrated nowadays. Belinda was also always much better at having fun than I am - and shrewder, more practical and possessed of far more commonsense. In an antic frame of mind, she could be very naughty, enjoying nothing more than trying to make me burst out laughing on occasions when that was the last thing I was supposed to do.

I wish I'd had a chance to say goodbye to my cousin. I already miss her presence in the world.


Tuesday, 16 March 2021

First As Tragedy

It's not true what they say about history repeating itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. It's tragedy and then more tragedy really. 

I realised this when I came across a passage in Put Out More Flags by Evelyn Waugh. It's a novel I started to read decades ago, but somehow lost sight of; consequently, I am having the infinite pleasure of reading it for the first time now. 

The passage that caught my eye concerns the government's requisitioning of a big house to turn it into a hospital for air-raid victims. The result seems to me to parallel exactly the idiocy of the UK government during this pandemic, focussing solely on those with the current virus, forgetting the care they owe to those with other ailments:

"So there was the house ... and the government moving in to make it a hospital ... It's full of beds and nurses and doctors waiting for air-raid victims and a woman in the village got appendicitis and she had to be taken 40 miles to be operated on because she wasn't an air-raid victim and she died on the way."

I wish we would learn things.

(Oh, I've just looked up the "first as tragedy quote". No wonder it's wrong - it's from the single most destructive lunatic the world has ever seen, and the nastiest piece of work personally: that is to say, Karl Marx.)

Monday, 8 March 2021

Creeping Socialism

One night recently, having explained to my husband that I really could not stand another episode of the BBC News, with its nightly tide of tabloid tearjerking and government sponsored panic-stoking, he compromised and put on an episode of Spectator TV. 

At the start of the episode, there was an interview between Andrew Neil and  a statistician called David Spiegelhalter. During the interview Spiegelhalter expressed himself extremely proud and deeply moved by the fact that no-one in the United Kingdom can obtain a vaccination against coronavirus by paying for one.

"You can't buy it", chimed in Neil, and both men seemed to find this a reason for rejoicing.  The exchange has been puzzling me ever since. Here it is:


I was under the impression that the United Kingdom, like all European countries, worked on the principle of free enterprise. While the United Kingdom does seem to be showing unwonted efficiency in ensuring its citizens are vaccinated (and in that context has anyone else noticed how none of his colleagues ever seem to mention Nadhim Zawahi, the minister responsible for this success, or hand him a crumb of praise), I bet the whole process is costing a pretty penny. As for the rest of Europe, don't get me started: the vaccination process, run by various governments, with the 'help' of Brussels, but completely unsullied by any assistance from free enterprise, is an absolute total mess.

Where would the harm be if private enterprise was allowed to run in tandem with national government-run and -funded health services? I'm not suggesting that anyone should be deprived of the right to get vaccinated at government expense, but what if they were also allowed, should they choose, to remove the burden of their individual vaccination from government and pay for it to be done elsewhere? How could that be immoral? It wouldn't be pushing anyone out of the way; it would be turning to an alternative source and lightening the burden on the government. If the health services aren't a dreadful drain on the government, why did poor old Captain Tom Moore feel the need to stagger up and down his garden to raise money for them? 

Yet in the health provision area anything involving offering payment for service, if you can afford to, is considered shocking and grubby and vile. Thus when a clinic in the north of England found that from time to time it had leftover vaccine that needed using up at the end of the day, the people running it decided it was perfectly okay to give the extra vaccinations to friends and relations of the staff; doing anything enterprising with them, such as selling tickets in a money-raising raffle that would give the right to anyone whose ticket was drawn to expect a call to come in immediately and get a leftover shot would have been seen as outrageous and vile. 

To reiterate, I am not suggesting that anyone should miss out. I am not suggesting that the most needy shouldn't be given for free everything that the service is able to provide. What I am suggesting is that, if some people have money they want to spend on getting a vaccination, why should anyone feel proud that there is no opportunity for them to take pressure of the government-funded health service by getting themselves vaccinated at their own expense? Why would it be a sin to save taxpayers' money and speed up the process, so that everyone could get back to normal life more quickly? Isn't government having sole control of the supply of any substance anathema in a free enterprise system? Does no one else think the most urgent thing we need to achieve is to get each of our nations back to normal as quickly as possible so that businesses currently shut down can reopen and the economy can be dragged back from the brink of total collapse? Have I missed some important event, such as a Bolshevik revolution? Are we all socialists now?


Saturday, 6 March 2021

Around the World

I read the perfect book for lockdown and wrote about it for Australia's Quadrant  magazine. As it is behind a paywall, I'm reproducing it here:

Around the World in the Cinemas of Paris by Theodore Dalrymple, Mirabeau Press, ISBN: 978-1-7357055-0-7, available through Amazon, £9.94 

A year or so ago while in Paris, where his wife's mother was convalescing from an operation, Theodore Dalrymple started going to the cinema a couple of times a day. Such an unusually wide variety of films was on offer there, he realised, that it would be possible to travel around the world cinematically without ever leaving town. He decided he would take this stationary journey, and in his delightful new book, Around the World in the Cinemas of Paris, he describes how it went. Although he can have had no idea that a pandemic was approaching, with its accompanying array of restrictions, now that travel is out of the question and cinema-going problematic, his project seems perfectly timed. With the book in hand, the reader at last has an opportunity to visit a variety of cinemas, at least vicariously, and to indulge in travel, even if it is only of the armchair type.

The films viewed for the book were chosen purely according to their location, Dalrymple tells us in his preface. He excluded France, Britain and the US, because he felt he knew them too well to watch films made there with fresh eyes, and he decided to only "visit" any country once. His interest, he says, was not that of a student of cinema but of a traveller. "It was the depiction of the countries that interested me", he explains. He then proceeds to describe what it was like to watch 33 films (almost all made in 2017 or 2018), set in 34 countries, over the course of one year.

Many readers will already be familiar with Dalrymple’s writing. In this book, as always, he proves himself to be perceptive, thoughtful, largely undogmatic and often very funny. He asks unusual questions, refuses simple answers and admits that there is much he does not know. "Irrelevant questions enter my mind as I watch films, sometimes with the persistence of an obsessional idea,” he confides, adding that sometimes he feels “like the man who visits Versailles and wonders how they polish all the mirrors.” Thus, while watching a film from Lebanon, his mind hooks on the question of whether or not helmets really save the lives of construction workers, or whether they are “more magical incantation than genuine protection”. It is a question that seems surprisingly relevant in this era of face-mask debate. Even more apposite are his remarks following his viewing of an Indian movie called Hotel Salvation: “The supposed right to health, frequently advocated, makes of death an infringement of rights; but, while individual deaths may be unjust, Death itself cannot be...Death is always victorious."

Most of the films covered in the book are, I suspect, far more interesting and amusing in Dalrymple's accounts of them than they might be if one actually had to sit through them in person. Certainly his explanation of the only film among the selection that I have seen myself, The Square, made much better sense of the film than I had managed to do on my own. When reporting on films from countries he has some familiarity with, he intertwines his accounts of them with his own memories, and in all his accounts he includes the more interesting of the thoughts and questions that the films raise in his mind. Thus a film from Burma provides the opportunity to reminisce on the experience of being set about with an umbrella by a Buddhist monk when he visited that country and to ponder the guilty pleasure many travellers from better-off, freer countries experience when visiting somewhere that is deprived in comparison to where they come from. As Dalrymple points out, while modernisation is naturally to be wished for, it also means "another step in the destruction of difference". Frontiers, a film that takes the viewer through Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Benin and Nigeria, evokes memories of his own travels in that region, and helps him to understand that what he thought he saw there was not always what was really going on.

His enthusiasm – one chapter begins “It is rare that one has the opportunity to see a Paraguayan film, and I seized it with alacrity" and another starts with the equally keen "How could I resist a film that followed several market women in their journey across West Africa by bus?" - is endearing, but behind the apparent naive eagerness lies a razor sharp mind. When he reports on a film from Romania, he manages to encapsulate in one withering sentence everything that was wrong with the Communists who ruled that country so brutally: "They had nothing to recommend them and ruined everything they touched". While discussing a film from Germany, he observes that, "We sometimes forget that sincerity may be a vice worse than cynicism", thus encapsulating in eleven words everything it took Graham Greene the whole of The Quiet American to try to express. He reflects on the medium of film itself, raising interesting questions about its deceptive quality, its ability to alter preconceptions and about whether it is “best to leave something to the viewers’ imagination” or to show everything, concluding that choosing the latter option can be a mistake, "the explicit in film ... turns everything into spectacle, whereas the implicit works by insinuation into the imagination". When making no comment works best, he leaves well alone, introducing us to a character in a film who “is waiting in the station for a consignment of used limb prostheses”, without feeling the need to embellish the absurdity of that statement. When he uses analogy, he makes sure it is striking – "The glitter is that of a fish rotting by moonlight" he tells us, summing up a decadent but tawdry section of Brazilian society. 

Dalrymple seems to approach everything in life, including the films he describes here, with humour and an open-minded curiosity that is infectious, (if one can still use that word positively). He has above all a fascination for the strangeness of humanity - "How odd we are!" he says at one point. This exclamation could be an alternative title for this very enjoyable, amusing and thoughtful book.

Friday, 5 March 2021

February Books

Point Counterpoint by Aldous Huxley. 

I read this novel for the first time when I was, I now realise, a child. It was recommended to me rather grandly by my brother as a "novel of ideas".  I liked the book better that time round and perhaps it might have been better if I hadn't  gone back to it. It is interesting for its portraits of DH Lawrence and John Middleton Murry (Huxley clearly liked Lawrence, although his portrayal didn't persuade me that he wasn't tiresome; he clearly loathed Murry, but over eggs his description to the extent that I began to have my doubts about Huxley more than about Murry). His portrait of a British Fascist leader, is not as I had imagined, supposed to be Mosley, as the book was written before the emergence of Mosley. 

After an opening scene that dazzled me more when I was young than it does now, set at a party in a splendid mansion on Piccadilly, where we meet many of the characters, the book meanders along, switching from character to character and giving the reader a fair idea of literary and artistic London life between the wars. What I had somehow entirely forgotten is that it then develops a couple of quite startling plot twists that left me staggered and faintly sickened.


Slough House by Mick Herron

I didn't actually read this; I listened to Sean Barrett read it for Audible. He has recorded all of the books in the Slough House series, and I think he has done a marvellous job. I love the character of Jackson Lamb, who is a latter day Falstaff. Fat, dirty, greedy, with a great fondness for farting, in this fictional world he is the only senior figure in the British secret service who still retains a little integrity and loyalty.


The Last Word and Other Stories by Graham Greene

Over the last 18 months I have read several novels by Graham Greene and I am having a continuing discussion with a friend who opposes my view that Greene and Somerset Maugham are both highly diverting, very clever but, as Maugham claimed of himself, not first rate, only at the very first rank of the second rate.

My favourite Greene novels so far are:

The Human Factor

Brighton Rock

The Quiet American (once it ended; until I got to the end and saw the clever trick of it, I had been inclined to think it in some way cliched, or senselessly prejudiced about Americans)

The Ministry of Fear

Monsignor Quixote

The Captain and the Enemy

I was ambivalent about The Heart of the Matter and The Confidential Agent, although I liked them quite a lot. I was bored by The Honorary Consul and I thought Our Man in Havana was rubbish, because I thought the character of the daughter did not work. I also thought the characters in England Made Me failed.

I am reading The Comedians at the moment and enjoying it on the whole. 

Of the short stories in the collection called The Last Word and Other Stories, I thought the one called The Lottery Ticket, in which a tourist buys a local lottery ticket in a poor country, wins the lottery and then donates the money to the administration of that country, is a perfect argument against untied overseas aid. In the preface, Greene says he decided to include a detective story he had written in the collection because reading it he couldn't work out who the culprit was; if he really couldn't, he must have been losing his marbles as it seemed obvious from the first page to me, and I wasn't the story's author.


Appleby at Allingham by Michael Innes

An enjoyable light detective tale in a series by Michael Innes about his detective who is called Inspector Appleby.


Operation Pax by Michael Innes

This is another Inspector Appleby story, but he appears very little as Innes was having quite fun trying his hand at a whiz bang, lots of action, gritty thriller, enclosed within his usual sleepy, sub-golden age, Appleby wrapping. Enjoyable and clever.


Memorial Service by JIM Stewart

JIM Stewart is the real name of Michael Innes (see above.) He was my brother's university tutor, which is how he came to my attention. I occasionally wonder whether anyone else reads him, apart from me. I like his tone, which is highly intelligent but entirely un-selfindulgent or showy. His novels are calming, even though some of them aren't entirely satisfactory.

This though is one of the best I have read by him, most particularly the wonderfully funny lunch scene it contains in which the guest is the gentle provost of an Oxford college and the host is a philistine county boor.

The novel is the third in a quintet. I wondered if Stewart was inspired to write a novel series by Anthony Powell, (not that the tone is similar to Dance to the Music of Time). I am wondering whether to go back and read the earlier ones or whether to simply plough on. Maybe I will leave it to the chance of what I find next time I am allowed into some English secondhand bookshops. If I find the earlier ones available, I will buy them. Similarly, if I find the later ones available, I will buy those. As a matter of fact, if I find another copy of Memorial Service, I will buy it as well, as the very cheap and battered paperback I picked up somewhere, came apart at the spine and fell apart as I read it.


Catholicism by Bishop Barron

This is a marvellous book for those interested in the Catholic faith. It is written clearly and beautifully and I loved it and learned a great deal from it.


Shirley by Charlotte Bronte

Having memories from school of finding large chunks of Jane Eyre dull and also having had the recent experience of getting stuck in the middle of Villette, I was surprised and delighted to find that I really enjoyed this, particularly the sly humour at the expense of the young churchmen and the perspective supplied by shifting forward in time at the close.


I also listened to quite a few Phil Rickman novels about Merrilee Watkins, while going for long walks. Although they follow something of a formula and the characters never really develop beyond a few tics, I loved the setting and enjoyed the very faint tinge of the supernatural.


Thursday, 4 March 2021

California Snuffling

 I found this, from Tina Brown's Diary for the UK Spectator this week, surprisingly endearing:

"Just before Christmas, my daughter Izzy took possession of a three-month-old English bulldog, acquired from Linda’s Klassy Kennel in Oklahoma. I was dubious. Izzy is a documentary producer who travels a lot, I’ve always been a cat person, and a red-state bulldog would surely bark for Trump. But as a flow of snaps arrived of a splotchy pink-snouted puppy — a runty number four in the litter — I started to feel the excited stirrings of cross-species motherhood. Three days before Christmas we got the call. An RV van driven from Oklahoma would meet us in the car park outside an Anaheim 7-Eleven at 8 p.m. There, a bearded dude emerged and handed Izzy a small bundle. 

What else could it have been but love at first sight? Gimli, as Izzy has called her (after the wise dwarf in Lord of the Rings) is a ‘bulldoglet’ from heaven. Her soft corrugated nose immediately burrowed into Izzy’s shoulder. Every day starts with what we call Storming the Capitol. Gimli’s crate door opens and she bursts out, furiously wagging her stump of a tail and hurling herself at my bed. We have decided that she was sent to us by my husband. She has so many of his characteristics: dogged (literally) tenacity; fearless when wrestling with dogs three times her size; and never more content than when chomping through a manuscript."

What her late husband might have made it, who knows.

Sunday, 28 February 2021

Adventures in Music

I love fiddling about on the piano when no one else is around. Mostly I sight read but just lately I have been trying to learn music off by heart, partly in an attempt to keep my brain in reasonable order, partly out of a misguided and never to be fulfilled dream that one day I will sit down in Euston Station - or somewhere else where they leave rather bashed up pianos for the public to play - and I will put my hands to the keyboard and a stream of wonderful melodic sound will result.

Among the pieces I've often sightread and am now looking at more closely are the oddly named Three Gnossiennes by Satie.

When merely sightreading it was as much as I could do to merely follow the notes. I allowed the instructions from the composer about how to play them to slide by in a blur. Now though I realise that they are quite out of the ordinary and constitute a work of art in and of themselves. They start out normally enough:



but after the first page the composer decides to have some fun:















Are we dealing with instructions about how to play this music, how to live life, or simply the transcript of a few castings of the I Ching, I wonder. Whatever they are, I have seldom read such a charming set of musical notations:






The last of these instructions would be the one that anyone hearing me play would be most keen that I took notice of.